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Dopamine: The False Promise of Reward

The problem is modern day stimuli like alcohol, drugs, stress, sleep deprivation actually impair this sensitive part of the brain to the extent where it mimics actual brain damage, albeit temporary. This can impair our ability to think rationally and make the correct decisions to reach our long term goals.

The neurotransmitter or brain chemical, dopamine is responsible for most societal ills in capitalist countries. If you read about "dopamine and the false promise of reward", you will start to appreciate how futile the quest for pleasure, happiness and satisfaction through the constant pursuit of rewards really is, and the fact that they are not entirely connected.

In fact the brain is not actually that interested in happiness; it is more interested in preserving our primal survival instincts like passing on our genes, climbing that tree for the nuts or fruits, hunting that animal for meat, fishing for that fish and taking on extra calories when the opportunity presents itself as extra insurance against famine or shortage.

Dopamine not only makes up part of our drive to survive and excel, but part of our reward system in the brain. Therefore in a cruel sort of way, the brain uses the "carrot and stick" approach to achieve its primary objective i.e. survival of the species.

We mistake the "promise of reward" for happiness

We mistake the experience of wanting for a guarantee of happiness and we are prepared to work and even suffer e.g. debt, for what we want as evidence that the object of desire must make us happy. We humans find it nearly impossible to distinguish the "promise of reward" from whatever pleasure or payoff we are seeking.

The "promise of reward" is so powerful that we continue to pursue things that don't make us happy and consume things that bring us more misery than satisfaction.

This evolutionary survival mechanism worked effectively for our primal ancestors, but unfortunately it has found its way into our modern day living, where we are tempted with all the modern day convenience including online shopping, gambling, on demand sex and drugs, 24 hour supermarkets, fast food outlets and specifically engineered processed foods with the optimum combination of salt, sugar, bad fats and chemical additives to highjack the reward circuit in our brains.

Of course we can experience pleasure and satisfaction, which contributes to happiness, but only when we consume in moderation and adopt meaningful lifestyles. This is the "carrot and stick approach" the brain uses to keep you getting out of bed in the morning. However when you exceed the brain's "pleasure budget", the quest for happiness backfires.

I only learned this two years ago when I started doing research for my fat loss book and there is not a better example of this relationship between dopamine, the false promise of reward and happiness, than with food.

The obesity crisis is linked to this relationship and is exacerbated by the fact that there is so much choice and temptation, which has allowed this primal survival instinct to be responsible for an unhealthy relationship with food, including overeating and eating things that are not real foods.

Unfortunately these "foods", which were never intended to be consumed by humans, hijack the reward circuit in the brain, flooding our systems with dopamine giving us that euphoric feeling, which we also get from many other modern day temptations such as gambling, drugs, shopping, alcohol, sex, collecting material goods.

The only problem is that it is short lived. Why? Because with every messenger chemical e.g. dopamine, insulin, leptin, serotonin, there is a receptor waiting to pick up the message or command. However when that chemical is circulating in high amounts, the corresponding receptor, in our case dopamine down regulates (reduces in density and functionality or becomes resistant to the signal) because it is being bombarded by excess dopamine from the excess stimulant (food, drugs, shopping, etc).

The result of this is that the "high" is never the same as the first few times you consume something in high quantities or with regularity and hence you get the "false promise of reward". It never delivers the same hit and so you are constantly looking to increase the consumption to experience that initial euphoric feeling.

Just ask the alcoholic or cocaine addict who constantly chases the "high"; it becomes elusive with regularity and excess because the dopamine receptors have down regulated or became resistant to the signal.

Has evolution given us any tools to cope with the endless choice and temptation?

As a matter of fact, yes we have a chunk of brain at the front of the head (see diagram above) called the pre-frontal or frontal cortex (in blue), which has developed over time to help us adapt to the challenges of modern living.

This includes the ability to exercise willpower when we need to make important decisions that will prevent us from harm or help us stay on the path to reach our long term goals; for example, resist that chocolate cake in order to lose the excess fat and live a healthier, happier and longer life. This part of you recognises that the cake threatens your long term goals and so it will do whatever it can to deal with this threat by helping to control intense emotions and impulses. This is your willpower instinct.

The problem is modern day stimuli like alcohol, drugs, stress, sleep deprivation actually impair this sensitive part of the brain to the extent where it mimics actual brain damage, albeit temporary. This can impair our ability to think rationally and make the correct decisions to reach our long term goals.

The paradox of reward

There is nothing wrong with desire until we mistake the wanting for happiness. A life without wants may not require as much self-control, but it's also a life not worth living.

The "promise of reward" doesn't guarantee happiness, but no "promise of reward" guarantees unhappiness; listen to the "promise of reward" and we give in to temptation.

Without the "promise of reward", we have no motivation. To this dilemma, there is no easy answer. It's clear that we need the "promise of reward" to keep us interested and engaged in life. If we are lucky, our reward systems won't stop serving us in this way, but hopefully they won't turn against us either. We live in a world of technology, advertising and 24 hour opportunities that leave us always wanting and rarely satisfied.

If we are to have any self-control, we need to separate the real rewards that give our lives meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted. Learning to make this distinction may be the best we can do. This isn't always easy, but understanding what's happening in the brain can make it a little easier and we may find just enough clarity in moments of temptation to not believe the brain's "big lie".

Desire is the brain's strategy for action. As we have seen, it can be both a threat to self-control and a source of willpower. When dopamine points us to temptation, we must distinguish wanting from happiness. In the end, desire is neither good nor bad; what matters is where we let it point us and whether we have the wisdom to know when to follow.

Final thoughts

Big business, including retailers and advertisers know all this and go to great efforts to trigger the "promise of reward". Knowing that cues have been carefully chosen to tempt you can help you see them for what they are and resist them.

In summation, the only way to achieve a stable level happiness is to balance the amount of dopamine and dopamine receptors, which can only be achieved by a combination of strategies.

These strategies include proper diet (limiting sugars and grains, eating good fats, meats, fish, vegetables, nuts, seeds and minimising processed junk foods), intermittent fasting, proper exercise (high intensity), proper sleep, stress management, meditation, the pursuit of interests, hobbies and meaningful relationships with friends, family and spirituality. This ensures a balance of dopamine and optimum functioning of dopamine receptors in concert with other hormones and neurotransmitters, which is what the body strives for, aka homeostasis.

It's that simple! But why don't Governments teach this in schools? We know the answer to that and that is there would be no mass consumerism/consumption or at least not to the same extent or scale.

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"Maximum Willpower" by Kelley McGonigle